Monday 27 January 2020

Brent Pope: 'A bonus-point win for Leinster is there for the taking if they get the basics right'

4 January 2020; James Ryan, left, and Rhys Ruddock of Leinster during the Guinness PRO14 Round 10 match between Leinster and Connacht at the RDS Arena in Dublin. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
4 January 2020; James Ryan, left, and Rhys Ruddock of Leinster during the Guinness PRO14 Round 10 match between Leinster and Connacht at the RDS Arena in Dublin. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Brent Pope

While Munster's coach Johann van Graan and Connacht’s Andy Friend both assess their walking wounded in an effort to cobble a team together for European action this weekend, Leinster coach Leo Cullen is at the other end of the decision-making process – who does he leave out?

Lyon's Pierre Mignoni is a shrewd coach and has his team up to second place in the French domestic league with 10 wins from 13 games, including impressive away wins to Racing 92 and Toulon.

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But even he will think that coming to the RDS, with what will surely be a weakened side, and winning is a tall order. I suggest that Lyon will arrive with a traditional hard-nosed pack, shorn of a few big stars, kick a lot and try and prevent Leinster from playing their wide and high-tempo game.

In the Pro14, teams have plenty opportunity to experiment, to attack from depth and create fast ball. Losing is not the end of the world. In Europe, you must win your home games then try to grab a win or bonus points on the road.

Leinster have done all that, with an unbeaten run that ensures knockout qualification, but they may be forced to reign in their all-action game because Lyon will try and prevent them from playing.

It shows how rugby has changed in both countries. Years ago it would have been the French sides attacking from all areas of the park. Now, it is the French who often arrive with a gargantuan pack and a 10-man game plan.

Leinster and Ireland, on the other hand, want quick ball to cut angles of attack and counter-attack from all areas. This week, that just may take a bit more planning and some selection tweaks from Cullen.

It's hard to see Lyon having any real interest in Sunday's game, apart from giving some fringe squad members a chance to show what they can do. A loss to Benetton in Italy sees Lyon languishing near the bottom of the pool, while Leinster are now looking at securing top spot.

Add to that Leinster’s incredible home record, a winning run of 16 games in all competitions and a buoyant home crowd and you would have to worry for Lyon. French teams rarely travel well anyway and they won’t bring a huge fan base, as they will be concentrating on making the play-offs in France.

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Leinster coach Leo Cullen. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

The only worry is Leinster complacency. Lyon will presumably rest many of their key players but Leinster need to be slightly wary. Some of the squad players will see this as an opportunity to show Mignoni what they can do and this may their only chance to perform.

That does carry an element of danger – just look at how Leinster’s second-string players have been performing, taking every opportunity that Cullen has afforded them. Leinster just need to guard against not giving Lyon respect, especially for the first quarter.

They have got into a good habit of starting strong in matches and that needs to continue. So, too, their ability to stretch teams across the field. This is especially applicable to French teams, but that also means discipline and building a cushion first.

Do not invite weaker teams into an arm-wrestle – keep your shape and your pattern, but do the basics well.

Cullen is in an enviable position as regards selection. Two areas that must be causing him headaches (in a positive way) are the back row and scrum half.

Two weeks ago, Caelan Doris had a storming game against Munster and just when you thought that he had made the Leinster No 8 shirt his own, Max Deegan steps up against Connacht with an equally-dazzling display in attack and defence.

Then you have last week’s Man of the Match Rhys Ruddock to consider, as well as Josh van der Flier, Scott Penny, Will Connors and others.

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Pierre Mignoni, pictured in his playing days, has become a shrewd coach at Lyon

I think you need Ruddock’s bulk and experience to start this game, with Van der Flier at seven. So who starts at No 8? If the game loosens up, then one of either Deegan or Doris will come on anyway. At half-back, Luke McGrath’s ability to up the tempo of the game in recent weeks sees him start in my opinion, while Ross Byrne slots in at 10.

The rest of the back line is as we would probably think, with Cullen perhaps giving serious thought to Rob Kearney at the back – especially if the weather is bad and he anticipates a kicking game.

The real question is on the bench, and who comes in to cover Ross Byrne. My feeling is that it will be his younger brother Harry, with Ross giving up some game time if Leinster are comfortable.

Given that Ross is more than likely going to be involved heavily in Ireland’s Six Nations, then some thought will also be given to including Ciarán Frawley in the match-day 23 (he can also cover multiple positions) but it would be a slight risk.

Up front, and despite being closely monitored this week, I would definitely not risk James Ryan.

Ryan is youthful and will respond well to treatment but soft-tissue strain or tear injuries, like calves and hamstrings, unless they are 100 per cent right, can, and often do, come back to haunt players.

If he plays and is not completely over it and it goes again, then we are looking at considerable time away from the game.

Ryan is crucial to Leinster European ambitions and Ireland’s hopes in the upcoming Six Nations campaign, so I am sure Irish coach Andy Farrell has been on the phone to Cullen, asking exactly what Ryan’s longer-term prognosis is.

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Leinster captain Scott Fardy speaks to his team following victory in Parma. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Leinster are in such a great place at the moment, even a player like Ryan can be replaced for a game like this, with serious options in the likes of Scott Fardy.

With only pride at stake for Lyon, and Leinster hunting a home draw, I find it hard to predict anything other than a bonus-point home win.

I think that Lyon will try and stop Leinster playing, but if Cullen’s side can start well and build a cushion then they can relax into the game.

In that case, you would fear for Lyon and it could quickly become a damage-limitation exercise for the French.

If Lyon still had a realistic chance in this competition then it would be a different story for a gnarly, talented side, but not this time – not in the RDS and not against a side that must be fancied to go all the way.

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